Incapacitating Chemical Agents – Blurring the lines.

Image: Copyright OPCW

Image: Copyright OPCW

This week, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons hosts the Conference of State Parties.  This event brings together national representatives from all over the world, in order to ensure the implementation of the ban against the development, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons. As was noted on the first day, in light of the recent atrocities in Syria, the responsibilities of those party to this convention also extends to the destruction of chemical weapon stockpiles as well as the support and treatment of victims of chemical weapons.

This year, there is a significant  attention from NGO groups to the issue of Incapaciating Chemical Agents or ICA’s.   ICA’s  are typically anaesthetic and sedative drugs, often delivered via aerosol, designed to render humans unconscious. The route of action in generally via the central nervous system, which means that the difference between subduing and killing is a matter of dosage. It has already been tragically demonstrated that controlling dose levels in operational contexts  is practically impossible. In the Moscow Theatre Hostage Crises in 2002, Russian security forces used an unknown aesthetic gas to subdue the hostage takers. The use of the agent resulted in the death of over 120 the hostages.

Concern about ICA’s is not limited to direct  and long term impact of the use of these weapons on human health.  There is also concern that the development and development  of these weapons by states also has the potential to undermine the norm against the use of chemical weapons in armed conflict.  This is often termed a ‘slippery slope’ type argument,  which is an approach to argumentation which is  associated with a tendency to focus on  bad outcomes, and ignore the intervening steps that lead to the outcome.  Such concerns are not farfetched however. For example,  currently the question of what counts as ‘legal law enforcement’ in a situation  where civil disorder borders on , and then turns into civil war, seems particularly challenging.  Such  ambiguity potentially has destabilising effects on local,  regional as well as international norms against the development and use of such weapons in military contexts.

At this weeks meeting at least three documents are being circulated by NGO’s on this issue area. The first is a policy paper produced by Dr Michael Crowley (University of Bradford) for the Biochemical Security 2030 Project based at the University of Bath. This paper makes a series of recommendations: (Full paper Available Here)

The international community’s response to advances in weapons-related science and technology has often been inadequate and late, introducing partial and ineffective controls (if any are introduced at all) long after a new weapons technology has spread to and been employed by State and non-State actors. With the issue of ICAs – because proliferation has been relatively limited – there is still time to act. There is now an opportunity for the OPCW to take a precautionary and preventative approach, and address the development and use of ICAs and related means of delivery. If the OPCW does not do so in the near future there is a danger that advances in relevant scientific disciplines together with current and potential future State research and development into ICAs and related means of delivery may lead to proliferation and misuse of such weapons.

Given such concerns, CWC States Parties both individually and collectively should consider the following activities and processes for addressing the regulation of ICAs and their means of delivery:

(a)    Affirm current national practice is to restrict use of toxic chemicals for law enforcement to riot control agents, and reaffirm the existing prohibition on the use of toxic properties of all chemicals in armed conflict

(b)   Introduce national moratoria on the development, stockpiling, transfer and use of ICAs and related means of delivery intended for law enforcement purposes

(c)    Initiate a mechanism within the OPCW to discuss the employment of ICAs in law enforcement

(d)   Utilize existing CWC consultation, investigation and fact-finding mechanisms when activities of potential concern are reported

(e)    Utilise the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) inter-sessional processes to explore science and technology developments of relevance to ICAs and related means of delivery.

In addition, the Director General and the Technical Secretariat should:

(a)    Develop appropriate verification mechanisms applicable to ICAs and their means of delivery

(b)   Monitor developments in science and technology applicable to ICAs and their means of delivery

(c)    Explore the implications of convergence in the life and chemical sciences for the development of ICAs and related means of delivery.

Finally, it is important that the non-governmental scientific community continue to be actively engaged on this issue, and specifically should:

(a)    Monitor developments in science and technology related to ICAs and their means of delivery and highlight attempts to harness such developments in weapons programmes

(b)   Engage with the OPCW, the BTWC States Parties and BTWC Implementation Support Unit (ISU) to develop and promote possible science-informed policy responses

(c)    Conduct education and awareness-raising amongst the life and chemical science communities on these issues.”

Likewise, the ICRC has also produced a position paper (available here), which in part draws upon an Expert meeting held in Montreux, Switzerland in April 2012 ( report available here).

Based on its assessment of the law and the risks, the ICRC calls on all States to:

‘•Take a policy decision, if they have not already done so, to limit the use of toxic chemicals as weapons for law enforcement purposes exclusively to riot control agents, as defined in the Chemical Weapons Convention;

•Enact national legislation, if they have not already done so, that limits the use of toxic chemicals as weapons for law enforcement purposes to riot control agents only and that prohibits the research, development, production, stockpiling and use of any toxic chemical as a weapon for law enforcement that does not fit the definition of a riot control agent specified in the Chemical Weapons Convention;

•Enact a national moratorium, pending the establishment of this national legislation, on the

research, development, production, stockpiling and use of any toxic chemical as a weapon for law enforcement that does not fit the definition of a riot control agent;

•Promote this national policy and legislative approach at the international level with the

aim of affirming an international prohibition, including at meetings of States Parties to the

Chemical Weapons Convention, the Biological Weapons Convention, and at international

human rights and drug control fora.’

 While there has been attention as well as support for addressing ambiguity around ICA’s, such as at the previous review conference, there has been little progress in terms of agreements. With this in mind it will be interesting to see the extent to which States Parties make moves on this issue in the run up to the next review conference.

Brett Edwards

Research Officer, Biochemical Security 2030 Project

Brett Edwards is a PhD candidate at the University of Bath.  His PhD examines the governance of dual-use aspects of the field of synthetic biology, within in the US and the UK. His PhD is Wellcome funded and Is part of a multi-university project entitled Building a Sustainable Capacity for Dual-use Bioethics.  Brett has also worked for 6-months as a research officer on a Foreign and Commonwealth Office funded project on S&T review within the  Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC). Recently, he  also completed a research fellowship  at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, which was funded by the Wellcome Trust.   Brett has a dual undergraduate background in Biology and Politics, and holds a MA in Biotechnological Law and Ethics (University of Sheffield, 2009).